The pile grew at Peyton Manning's feet, as jersey, pads, shoes, wristbands dropped into a pungent heap in front of his dressing stool. Then he paused and smiled crookedly. "I knew we would win," he said, long after Tennessee's 30-29 victory over Auburn in the SEC championship game last Saturday night in Atlanta and long after the celebration that followed. He knew when the Volunteers fell behind 20-7 in the second quarter, and 27-17 late in the third? "If we stayed calm, I knew we would win this game," Manning repeated. Believe it. Patience isn't just a virtue for the Vols of the Manning era, it's a necessity.
For three years Tennessee has seen its season seemingly destroyed by early-season losses to Florida. Yet for three years Tennessee has run the rest of the SEC table to keep its slim hopes for a conference championship alive. Credit for such perseverance goes to coach Phillip Fulmer, who despite an overall record of 54-10 has been sliced up by Vols fans for falling to the Gators for five straight years. Two years ago Tennessee blew a 30-14 lead to Florida and disintegrated in a 62-37 loss. The next morning Fulmer told his staff, "This is going to be the best week of practice we've ever had." Indeed, the Volunteers' workouts were exceptional that week. They would set the tone for the recovery that would follow—and that would remain an indelible experience for the many current starters who were sophomores then.
This season, nine days after losing to Florida 33-20 on Sept. 20 (Tennessee had a bye the next week), the same Vols, seniors now, convened a players-only meeting and implored their teammates to hold together. "Keep the faith," Manning remembers saying that day. "Things can happen." Things did happen. Florida lost to LSU and Georgia, and now Tennessee, which remained No. 3 in both polls after the squeaker over Auburn, has its first conference title since 1990. The Volunteers will play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl with a shot at the national championship should top-ranked Michigan fall in the Rose Bowl.
In his final SEC game, Manning threw for 373 yards and four touchdowns. This came at the end of a 12-day period during which he was often preoccupied with the condition of his 24-year-old brother, Cooper, who two days after watching Tennessee's Nov. 22 victory over Kentucky, underwent emergency spinal surgery to relieve worsening numbness in his left side from a congenital condition that ended his football career.
Cooper watched the Auburn game at home in New Orleans with his younger brother, Eli. At halftime he talked by phone with his mother, Olivia, who was at the Georgia Dome. "What's [Tennessee's] problem?" he shouted despite his discomfort. The other Mannings hope Cooper can travel to New York City this weekend for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, in which Peyton is one of four finalists. If not, his presence will be felt nonetheless. "Cooper and I were together out there tonight," said Peyton after the win over Auburn. "We're always together."
Though some at UCLA may be disappointed that the Bruins are going to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas A&M instead of to an Alliance bowl, coach Bob Toledo relishes the opportunity to face his old boss. Toledo was fired from his job as A&M's offensive coordinator by Aggies coach R.C. Slocum after the 1993 season.
Toledo won't say so, but he already feels somewhat vindicated. After last season Slocum fired Steve Ensminger, the man who succeeded Toledo as A&M's coordinator, and replaced him with Steve Marshall, who had been on Toledo's staff at UCLA.
Mack Brown spent the early part of last week insisting that he had no interest in the Texas coaching job. "Really and truly, I felt that way," he said. "I was planning on staying at North Carolina. I was serious." Brown spoke these words last Saturday from his new office at Texas.